Reformers take over failing Memphis schools

Tennessee is putting schools with very low test scores and graduation rates into a state-run district, reports the New York Times.  Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and poor, is the “crucible of change,” aka “a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers’ unions and some parent groups.”

Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district’s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.

There are signs of progress, but also complaints about “racial sensitivity.” That is, fewer than half the new district’s teachers are black, compared to 97 percent of students.

Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in in a very poor Memphis neighborhood, replacing all the teachers.  ”More than a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America,” reports the Times.

Mid-year tests showed rising scores. But parents complain of strict discipline.

 “They don’t understand black folk,” said Sara L. Lewis, a member of the merged Memphis and Shelby County School Board. “They don’t understand our values or events in our history.”

But Sarah Carpenter, a Memphis mother and grandmother on an advisory council to the achievement district, said students are “engaged and learning.”  Children will get used to higher expectations, she said.

New achievement district school staffers are wooing parents in their boundary zones (they must take all who apply) with door-to-door visits and open houses.

 Malia Oliver, a mother of a current kindergartner, was impressed. When Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire’s Memphis operations, asked to sit in on a special-education consultation for Ms. Oliver’s autistic son, “that just meant so much to me,” Ms. Oliver said.

But locals complain experienced teachers will be displaced.  “A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs,” said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.

Do state takeovers work? The Atlantic looks at New Jersey’s plan to take over Camden schools and potential takeovers in Ohio and Maryland.

The track record for state takeovers is shaky “probably because they don’t tend to change a whole lot,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C. “The union contract stays in place, the bureaucracy stays in place. All that’s gone is the school board.”

That’s why districts are turning to nonprofit charter management companies  to take over chronically low-performing schools.

Duncan: AmeriCorps will help failing schools

AmeriCorps volunteers will help raise graduation rates at the nation’s worst schools, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. With $15 million in federal funding, the School Turnaround AmeriCorps will send 650 members into 60 schools.

Duncan said AmeriCorps members will improve school safety, attendance and discipline, help students improve their reading and math skills and increase college enrollment by helping students and their parents apply for financial aid.

AmeriCorps members must be 18 to 24 years old. They don’t have to be high school graduates, much less college graduates. They get a subsistence wage, plus college aid or help paying student loans. It’s hard to believe they’ll be effective tutors, though perhaps they could patrol the halls and restrooms.

High school dropouts are costing some $1.8 billion in lost tax revenue every year, estimates a new report, which foresees a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

It’s not that simple, education economist Henry Levin tells the Huffington Post. “It’s like saying, if my 3-foot-tall child were 6 feet tall, my child would be able to do all sorts of things.”

Or, as they used to say: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Why people fight to save bad schools

Can a bad school be good for the neighborhood? asks Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly.

It’s very difficult to “turnaround” a chronically low-performing school, he writes. By contrast, closing a bad school and starting from scratch “can move the quality curve to the right.” That’s his argument in  The Urban School System of the Future.

Furthermore, some arguments for keeping bad schools open are unpersuasive, he writes.

Their “closures-are-a-civil-rights-violation” argument causes most to reply, “It’s a far greater violation to force low-income African American and Latino children to remain in failing, unsafe schools.”

However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that closing a school — even a failing, unsafe school — will destabilize the neighborhood, making things even worse, Smarick writes. It’s clear that “good schools are a powerful asset for troubled neighborhoods.” But “every school, even the lowest-performing, is woven into the fabric of its neighborhood—and tugging on that thread affects the entire cloth.”

Even if educationally dysfunctional, the school likely has its share of caring, educated adults who serve as role models and mentors for needy children.

The school may serve as the community hub for social services or civic activities.

Maybe its athletic teams still serve as a source of community pride.

. . . Maybe the neighborhood sees that school as the last thing that is actually theirs. Other families moved away. Businesses shut down. Churches closed their doors. But their school remains.

In There Are No Children Here Alex Kotlowitz describes how two boys try to survive in a dangerous Chicago housing project. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

Motor City meltdown

Detroit’s incompetent school board could regain control of the city’s worst schools, reports the Detroit News.

The state’s Education Achievement Author, modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery District, took control of the lowest-achieving schools last year under a contract written by Roy Roberts, the emergency manager. When Michigan voters repealed the state’s “emergency manager” law, the Detroit Board of Education canceled the contract, writes Education Gadfly in Meltdown in the Motor City. The Detroit school board, which one newspaper columnist said was “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence,” now wants to take back the schools, which are in the lowest 5 percent of Michigan schools in achievement.

Turnaround … not so much

“Turnaround” schools didn’t turn very far, despite billions of dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, reports the U.S. Education Department. Two thirds of low-performing schools showed some improvement;  one third got even worse. What Ed Week calls “mixed results,” Andy Smarick labels “disappointing but completely predictable.”

Twenty-five percent of schools made “double-digit” gains in reading and 15 percent in math, which could mean a 10 percent gain from a very low base, Smarick points out.  ”They are schools that went from really, really, really low-performing to really, really low-performing.”

“Single-digit” gains — as little as 1 percent — were reported by 40 percent of schools  in math and 49 percent in reading.

Yes, it’s only the first year, but the first year is the easiest, writes Smarick.

 Historically, schools subject to “turnaround” attempts are so low-performing that improvement efforts often see early gains. These schools are in such dire straits that initial quick-win efforts like instituting a school-wide curriculum or bringing a modicum of order to classrooms will bring about a bump in performance. The problem in the past has been sustaining and building on the gains made in year one. I can’t recall a study of previous turnarounds that showed so many schools falling farther behind after interventions.

Some SIG schools were improving before they received the grants, but then slid back, notes Ed Week.

 Twenty-six percent of schools in the program were on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grant. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grant. A smaller percentage of schools, 25 percent, had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grant and began to improve once they got the funding.

So it looks like a wash — a very expensive wash.

Focus on elementary schools, where there’s a chance of success, suggests RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. Students are too far behind by middle school.

Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Districts rarely pick SIG’s strongest turnaround model, which calls for “shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools,” Biddle writes.

Obama touts turnarounds, but where’s the data?

School turnarounds are working claimed President Obama at the last two debates. But where’s the data? asks Alyson Klein on Ed Week‘s Politics K-12.

The Obama administration put $3 billion in stimulus funds into the School Improvement Grant program and required states to use one of four turnaround models. We don’t know if it’s working. ”It seems pretty clear that the administration is sitting on the data until after the election,” writes Klein.

Romney floats radical education idea

Education policy had a few moments in the Obama-Romney debate last night.

President Obama said education would be gutted, if Republican challenger Mitt Romney is elected, Ed Week reports.

“I’m not going to cut education funding . . . and grants that go to people going to college,” Romney said.

Obama touted his plan to hire an additional 100,000 math and science teachers.

Romney countered that Obama’s $90 billion invested in green energy (“You pick losers.”) would have paid for two million teachers.

Obama linked his education reform agenda to Common Core Standards, which are supposed to be a state effort, Ed Week notes.

Obama, who doesn’t refer to Race to the Top much on the campaign stump, invoked his signature education-reform brand three times in the debate as having “prompted reforms in 46 states.” (Clearly a reference to the common core, without naming the common-standards movement, which is a politically dicey thing for the federal government to support these days.)

Both candidates said improving education is a key to economic prosperity.

 Romney “floated the most radical, furthest left idea” in education in his debate with President Obama, writes Dana Goldstein on Slate. Romney called for letting poor and disabled schoolchildren use their federal education funding to cross district lines to attend a better school.  The idea is included in his education policy white paper released in May.

“Historically, affluent and white parents and school districts have gone to great lengths to keep poor, nonwhite kids out of their own kids’ classrooms,” Goldstein writes.

  The Obama administration’s signature school reform program, Race to the Top, did nothing to encourage school integration or allow children to attend schools outside of their home districts—an important right, since many failing schools are located in districts where almost every school is underperforming, and those that aren’t have overflowing wait lists.

Romney hasn’t explained how his proposal would work and the chances it would happen are slim, she predicts.

What would President Romney do on education? Rick Hess looks at Romney’s record as governor of high-scoring Massachusetts.

Romney’s education record as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007 looks a lot like President Obama’s has. Romney inherited a strong reform tradition — built around standards, testing, and accountability. He maintained and strengthened this commitment by adding a science test to the state’s accountability system and supporting high school exit exams. He also pushed a controversial plan to mandate parenting classes for parents in low-performing districts seeking to enroll their kids in kindergarten.

In terms of school choice, Romney vetoed a bill to place a moratorium on opening new charter schools, and the number of charter schools increased modestly, from 46 to 59. He unsuccessfully championed merit pay for the top third of performers and for math and science teachers, offering bonuses of up to $5,000. He pushed for addressing low-performing schools with strategies that are quite similar to those favored by the Obama administration, including making it easier to replace principals and teachers in such schools or turning them into charters.

President Romney probably would push an Obama-like reform agenda, “but would do so with a lighter touch, less spending, and more emphasis on choice,” Hess predicts.

Why ‘Won’t Back Down’ matters

Won’t Back Down is a predictable movie that resemble an after-school special, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time. It’s no Citizen Kane. But a Hollywood movie on the parent trigger matters a great deal. The education debate will not be the same.

Despite its sugary Hallmark quality, Won’t Back Down is a serious film about a grim reality — parents and teachers stuck in a system that puts kids last. (Maggie) Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a mom struggling to help her daughter while juggling all the other balls a single mom must keep in the air — work, life, flickering hope of romance. Her daughter’s dysfunctional school is a roadblock to a better future for her, and Fitzpatrick is determined to fix that. She enlists the help of a frustrated teacher (Viola Davis) to try to force the school board to improve the school under a district rule giving parents the ability to force action.

The film also has some nuance, unlike the blunt force trauma that tends to dominate education debates. A Teach For America teacher is portrayed not as a caricature of a noble savior or unwitting dupe but rather as a serious young person struggling to make sense of the conflicting values he encounters in a screwed-up urban school system. Played by Oscar Isaac, this teacher tries to reconcile his belief in unions as a tool of social justice with the jobs-and-adults-first reality he finds in his school district.

In the face of union opposition, the movie’s stars aren’t backing down, Rotherham writes.

On Monday’s Today Show, Oscar nominee Viola Davis made clear that she understands firsthand how important education is in breaking the cycle of poverty. She grew up poor and seems to have little patience for those resisting efforts to improve public school. “It’s a system that’s broken and needs to be fixed,” she said on the show.

The movie’s opponents — “teachers unions carping that the movie is unfair and activists claiming that giving parents more power is akin to privatization” — have turned Won’t Back Down “into a national conversation piece,” Rotherham writes. Even those who don’t believe parents can run schools are talking about what can be done when children are trapped in low-performing schools.

Do parents need a trigger — or choices?

Won’t Back Down — Hollywood’s parent (and teacher) trigger movie, premieres today. A documentary it’s not, but its emotional appeal is likely to move the debate. Think of Erin Brockovich for school reform.

Can parents do a better job of running their children’s schools? Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, is sympathetic but concerned, he writes on Title I-derland.

Specifically, I worry that Parent Trigger laws will be better at destroying bad schools than creating excellent schools. The crux of it is this: Parent Trigger laws combine two actions – (1) parent empowerment and (2) parent influence over management – when only the first action is necessary for real change. Moreover, involving parents in management may end up decreasing student achievement.

. . . The power to change doctors is an important power – the power to influence hospital management is less useful. I don’t know how to run a hospital, and I don’t wish to have the responsibility of guiding hospital management strategy bestowed upon me.

(In November, I’ll vote on the management of the local hospital district. I’ll have to figure out which way to go by then.)

New Orleans has lots of choices for parents, responds RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation, but it’s not typical:  Most parents have few or no affordable alternatives to the neighborhood school.

Biddle thinks parents will do a better job than school districts. I think parents who win a trigger vote (and the subsequent lawsuits) will hire a management team — probably from a charter network — and fire them if they don’t perform well.

Making school turnarounds work

School Turnarounds by Heather Zavadsky looks at how districts are trying to improve chronically low-performing schools.